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What is an Electric Catfish?

J.L. Drede
J.L. Drede

The electric catfish is the common name for the family of catfish known as Malapteruridae, which includes nearly 20 separate types of catfish. The term electric catfish is most often used when described a specific species of the animal, Malapterurus electricus, which is occasionally sold as a pet fish and seen in aquariums. It is found in the waters of tropical Africa.

Like its name suggests, it has the ability to create an electric charge that is used to both stun prey and elude predators. The electrical charge is generated by organs in the skin of the fish, and the fatty layers of flesh below the charge insulate the fish so it doesn't electrocute itself. Its body is one big electrical current, with the head serving as the negative pole and the tale the positive one.

An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.
An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.

The electric catfish can get quite large in the wild, up to 39 inches (99 cm) in length. It is usually beige and has sporadic black spotting across most of its body, which is without any scales or protective plates. During the day the fish is usually found deep in caves or other rocky formations. At night it will leave its shelter to eat, primarily existing on a diet of smaller fish and crustaceans.

The charge of an electric catfish cannot kill a human, so it is safe to keep as pets, although the shocks do sting. Its electric properties are enough to kill or wound just about any other aquarium fish though, so it cannot have any tank mates. Other special considerations must be made when keeping an electric catfish in an aquarium. Its only defensive trait is its electrical charge; the electric catfish has no protective scales or plates to protect its skin. An exposed heater or jagged rock in an aquarium could injure or even kill the fish. Special care must be exercised to ensure its living environment is a safe one. Like many other types of catfish, the electric cat prefers dark spaces, so plenty of rocks that provide ample cover should be provided. It will also dig its own shelter in the substrate, so any live plants might suffer as a result.

Aside from those issues, the electric catfish is a tough fish that can withstand most water conditions. The pH level can vary between 7.0 and 8.2 and the temperature can be between 73 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 30 Celsius). It does need a large tank though. While captive electric catfish don't grow as large as the ones in the wild, it can easily reach 1 foot (30 cm) in length. A minimum 50 gallon (190 liter) tank is recommended. And don't try to create pairs for breeding; no one has ever successfully bred the species in captivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an electric catfish and how does it generate electricity?

An electric catfish, belonging to the family Malapteruridae, is a freshwater fish known for its ability to generate electric shocks. It produces electricity using specialized cells called electrocytes, which are organized in its body like batteries in series. When threatened or hunting, it discharges electricity to stun prey or deter predators.

Where can electric catfish be found in the wild?

Electric catfish are native to the Nile River and other river basins in Africa. They inhabit a range of freshwater environments, including murky waters where their electrolocation abilities give them an advantage in navigating and hunting in low-visibility conditions.

How strong is the electric shock from an electric catfish?

The electric shock from an electric catfish can vary in strength, with some species capable of producing up to 350 volts. The shock is strong enough to stun prey and deter predators but is generally not lethal to humans. However, it can be quite painful and should be treated with caution.

What do electric catfish eat?

Electric catfish are carnivorous and primarily feed on other fish. They use their electric shock to stun or kill prey before consumption. Their diet can also include invertebrates and dead organic matter, making them opportunistic feeders in their natural habitat.

How do electric catfish use electricity for navigation?

Electric catfish use a process called electrolocation to navigate and hunt in murky waters. They emit low-voltage electric pulses and sense the returning signals after these pulses bounce off objects or other fish. This allows them to create a mental map of their surroundings and detect prey or obstacles.

Are electric catfish kept in aquariums, and what are the challenges?

While electric catfish can be kept in aquariums, they pose significant challenges due to their ability to generate electric shocks and their large adult size. Aquarium owners must take precautions to avoid electric shocks during maintenance and provide ample space for these fish to grow, which can reach up to 100 cm in length.

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    • An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.